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The Legal Status of Women in the Early Modern Era


1 Introduction

2. The role of women in the early modern period

3. Aspects of marriage and family law in the early modern period

4. Conclusion


1 Introduction

The housework “The Legal Status of Women in the Early Modern Age” aims to investigate the extent to which the social change of the early modern period affected the legal and social position of women in the early modern class society. The focus is on asking about possible courses of action and alternative courses of action that women of different social classes and in different regions had in order to assert themselves in a largely male-dominated society.

There are two steps to answering this question. First of all, we should ask about the social role of women in the early modern period and about programmatic drafts for images of men, images of women and gender roles. This is done in the 2nd chapter of the housework.

Following this, legal norms are presented and explained on the basis of selected excerpts from sources, which mainly affect marriage and family law in the early modern period. In contrast to early modern constitutional law or early modern criminal law, the specific legal status of women in a society that was undergoing fundamental social change is examined here. The central concern of housework is to contribute to a differentiated view of the social and legal position of women and at the same time to find an answer to the question of the relationship between misogyny and structural discrimination against women on the one hand and emancipatory approaches and a changed gender ratio the other side.

2. The role of women in the early modern period

An analysis of the legal status of women in the early modern period is first of all faced with the problem of narrowing down the period and the subject of the investigation in a meaningful way. The problem is on two levels. On the first level there is the problem of a justified temporal periodization. If, in a very broad sense, the early modern age begins with a smooth transition from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Renaissance humanism and extends over the age of European discoveries and the Reformation to the development of the Baroque culture, then the result for the early Modern times about a period from the 14th to the 17th century.1 In this long period of around 400 years, however, European societies changed fundamentally, so that one can only speak of a unified early modern era with great caution. In this respect, the partial epoch of the early modern period and the legal position of women as well as their underlying image of women would have to be taken into account.

On the second level, a restriction is necessary in such a way that “the woman” does not exist in the early modern era, but rather represents a construct that would have to be differentiated in terms of social structure, for example from the noble woman in the early modern era, the bourgeois “woman” “In the early modern age and women in agriculture, for example as a farmer or maid, should be mentioned. If one assumes that early modern societies were class societies, then the socio-structural integration of women in a certain epochal and life-work context must be taken into account. L. Schorn-Schütte points out that the social orders of old Europe from the early Middle Ages to the beginning of the 19th century were shaped by estates, that is, that every person was born into a specific social grouping and in principle could not leave it.2

There is also another problem related to the nature of the source traditions. Concepts of the nature of women and their social functions as well as their legal status were based on idealized images and norms and role expectations. Among other things, this included the modern mother ideal, about which F. Höher states:

This new type of mother was designed and preached during the Reformation. It is to be put in connection with the changes in the early middle-class household, that is to say with the emergence of a pre-form of early modern housework in the work area of ​​the master craftsman woman, which coincides with the exclusion of productive activities from her field of work. It also correlates with the continuous devaluation of the legal position of women in the home since the 14th century. 3

The images of women in the early modern period therefore included an idealized way of life of the female existence as mother and housewife, who lived in a gender-specific, standardized role distribution in the context of class society. In this perspective, the woman was primarily responsible for looking after the household and the children. The family represented an image of the absolutist society that was gradually developing. For women, like children, were subject to the dominant position of a householder in a house. The woman thus primarily fulfilled an economic function in that she operated the “free reproduction of labor” and was thereby integrated into a hierarchical structure.4 The ideal of the housemother was propagated and religiously legitimized. The gender-specific assignment located the woman "in the household" and the "man for politics, wars and imperial trade".5

Luther and other authors combined their idealized and social structures stabilizing images of women with an apodictic role expectation, which was at the same time indirectly connected with a threat: a deviation from the norm, for example about adultery, was not only viewed by Luther and the other authors as a sin against God and the saints Geist sharply criticized, but also understood as an attack on the legitimate political order and the order of the house. The reason was:

“Because the adulteress brings another heir into the house. " 6

These early modern authors designed their idealized image of women in “women's mirrors” and pedagogical teaching texts, which pursued the intention to be literarily effective, with the basic tendency running down to the subordination and adaptation of women. At the same time, this was combined with a regulation of female eroticism and in this respect resulted in forms of social control and social discipline:

“Everyone, bad or good, is by nature such that he would rather have his married wife pious than bad. […] So beautiful woman, remember that you live in peace in your life and also keep peace on both sides, that's why I advise you, young woman, if you give a man your body, then give him your will right away, then you will both live in peace. […] When you have a day in marriage, your evil deeds are no longer accepted as child's play, but they are taken for the will of the husband. So glory to God, follow his angel, so that you don't get hit by the punishment. [...] don't give anyone a bad oneRole model, don't let yourself see how you jump beautiful and wild like a young foal that theDesire to hunt. " 7

What is remarkable about this source is not only the subordination of women to the supremacy of men, but also their abandonment of individuality. The woman was understood as a largely needless being that should be guided by the wishes of the man and the role expectations of society. The definition of woman did not arise from herself, but from the expectations of a predominantly male conception of family life and partnership. An independent or even critical role including the willingness to conflict in order to enforce one's own goals and interests is categorically excluded in this source. The virtues expected of the wife are primarily submission, patience, peacefulness, restraint and domesticity. It is certainly true when H. Lauterer-Pirner points out the misogynistic tendencies of Luther's and Frauenspiegel's statements. However, she also emphasizes that in the transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period there were also tendencies to expressly recognize and enhance the role of women as partners of men and to regard women as approximately equal people.8 It would therefore be a mistake to assume only one image of women in the early modern period. Especially in the context of the Renaissance culture of the later 14th, but not until the 15th and 16th centuries, with the change in images of the world and people, a social change took place with a view to images of women and the social roles of women in society , following on from ancient models, the individual was understood as a self-confident and autonomous being and was removed from the narrowness of the medieval order. This does not mean that the ecclesiastical, religious norms and the restrictions of the feudal order have been eliminated, but they have been supplemented and expanded to include new opportunities for women to take on a broader repertoire of roles and different tasks in society. However, H. Schmölzer warns against linking the role of women in the Renaissance with the concept of gender equality. She emphasizes that the middle and lower classes of early modern society had initially changed little in terms of the role of women and their social opportunities:

"The woman remained what she had been throughout the history of the patriarchy:

Object that had to be related to the subject man. The patriarchal structure of the family was still undisputed. " 9

An extension of the possibilities of action of a woman existed above all for the members of the higher social classes. However, the formal legal restrictions that had made the legal position of women in medieval law still apply here. As a rule, women were not allowed to hold any public office, nor were they allowed to vouch for other people, adopt a child or act as a guardian or representative of an underage person. Although these norms did not apply to their own children, they significantly limit women's civil rights. On the other hand, there is a differentiated chance of becoming a professional. On the one hand, women were not allowed to learn a trade or, according to the guild rules, to exercise professions which, after completing an apprenticeship, conveyed a journeyman's certificate or the master's examination. On the other hand, in the early modern period women were represented in numerous occupations in both agriculture and trade, provided that they were allowed to do so or tolerated by the social environment.10 In the early modern era, women's work was not the exception, but the rule. This was particularly true for agricultural or farm work, but also for manual activities such as the production of capes and blankets. In the event that men were absent due to war, aristocratic women sometimes took on leading functions in agriculture and supervised trade activities that were otherwise carried out by men. It was a matter of course that women did housework anyway. Contrary to the legal limitation of women’s options for action, there were certainly opportunities for women to become economically active in everyday business practice. This also applied to the wives who, as widows of craft businesses or textile dealers, continued the business of their deceased husbands. Regional differences were also evident here. In France and England, for example, it became possible for wives to be accepted into the guilds after the death of their husbands. They were not legally allowed to trade or to make monetary transactions without the consent of their husbands or guardians. In practice, however, numerous women succeeded in undermining these legal norms. According to M. L. King, in the middle of the 15th century in Strasbourg, according to the guild roles evaluated, women worked in numerous craft and trade professions, including farrier, goldsmith, haulier, grain trader, gardener, tailor and cooper. Further examples show that women were also active in other professions, such as in the glass and stainless steel business, even if there are still severe restrictions, for example in the form that women were not allowed to employ apprentices because it was assumed that they were women do not have the necessary technical-manual dexterity.11

With Renaissance humanism, the opportunities for women to acquire education changed, even if this applied mainly to the social elite. The humanistic ideal of education aims not only to open up ancient literature and philosophy through knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek, but also to carry out an in-depth study of the early medieval patristicism of the church fathers. The educated woman thus corresponded by one possibility of the female existence of the early modern times, at least for a small segment of the social and cultural elite:

“So the perfect lady not only had to be beautiful, but also smart and educated. In addition, musical and artistic training was required. Images of women playing music as well as writing women are frequent during this period. " 12

The result of this educational expansion can be demonstrated in a number of poets and painters of the Renaissance culture. For example with Cassandra Fedele, who wrote her own sonnets in the style of Petrarch, or with Constanza Varano, who was also active as a poet. However, these women were often members of noble families such as the Roman aristocrat Vittoria Colonna, who lived in the early 16th century and was friends with Michelangelo. But women also came from wealthy patrician families who were literary or artistic in general, such as Gaspara Stampa, who lived from 1523 to 1554 and wrote her own poems. Another example of literary and artistic activities is Margaret of Navarra, sister of the French King Francis I, who wrote religious texts as well as lyrical and dramatic poems.13


1 Reinhard, Wolfgang: Problems of German History 1495-1806, Stuttgart, 2001. P. 55 f, in Gebhardt, Handbook of German History, Volume 9

2 Schorn-Schütte, Luise: History of Europe in the Early Modern Period Study Guide 1500-1789, Paderborn, 2009, p. 58

3 Höher, Frederike: Witch, Maria and Housemother - On the History of Femininity in the Late Middle Ages, in Anette Kuhn / Jörn Rüsen: Ed. Women in History Volume 3, Düsseldorf, 1983, p.49

4 Höher, Frederike: Hexe, Maria und Hausmutter - On the history of femininity in the late Middle Ages, in Anette Kuhn / Jörn Rüsen: Ed. Women in History Volume 3, Düsseldorf, 1983, p. 50

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Lauterer-Pirner, Heidi: from "Frauenspiegel" to Luther's writing about "married life" the image of the wife in the mirror of some testimonies from the 15th and 16th centuries, in Anette Kuhn / Jörn Rüsen: Ed. Women in History Volume 3, Düsseldorf 1983, p.65

8 Lauterer-Pirner, Heidi: from "Frauenspiegel" to Luther's writing about "married life" the image of the wife in the mirror of some testimonies from the 15th and 16th centuries, in Anette Kuhn / Jörn Rüsen: Ed. Women in History Volume 3, Düsseldorf 1983, p.63 f.

9 Schmölzer, Hilde: The lost story of women. 100,000 years of suppressed past, 2nd edition, Bad Sauerbrunn, 1991, p. 216

10 See Schmölzer, Hilde: The lost story of women. 100,000 years of suppressed past, 2nd edition, Bad Sauerbrunn, 1991, p. 216 f; see also - Margaret L. King: The woman in Eugenio Garin, Der Mensch der Renaissance, Frankfurt a.M., 1996, p.298 ff.

11 L. King, Margaret: The woman in Eugenio Garin, Der Mensch der Renaissance, Frankfurt a.M., 1996, p.300

12 Schmölzer, Hilde: The lost story of women. 100,000 years of suppressed past, 2nd edition, Bad Sauerbrunn, 1991, p. 218

13 Ibid. Schmölzer

End of the reading sample from 22 pages